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I would first like to commend my hon. Friend Liz McInnes. I agree with all her speech, but in particular the part about dangerous driving. The family of Violet-Grace Youens, aged four, and the community of St Helens, will be deeply let down by the lack of action following the Lord Chancellor’s commitment relating to death by dangerous driving. We will not cease until the law is changed, and we want that to be done quickly.
I welcome the uplift in police funding, but it will barely begin to fix the damage caused in the UK by austerity and the symptoms that that has created. We must, could and should provide more. I applaud local police and the National Crime Agency for the UK’s biggest ever drugs operation recently, in which we saw countrywide dawn raids and arrests from London and Manchester to St Helens. They smashed the UK’s biggest ever drug-smuggling gang and seized the largest ever drugs haul. I commend those public services.
That leads me to what we can do in this House to make things better and how we can help to attack the rapid expansion of the complex issue of county lines drug gangs. The financial inability of public service departments to provide necessary early interventions to struggling families, prevention services and distracting and diversionary safeguards, such as youth activities, is another factor. Drug gangs are empowered by these underfunded public services, as they feed on families suffering from income poverty and its physical and mental strain. These strains on families and insufficient local resources have led to an expansion in the number of children who have been placed in supported living—an unregulated provision not monitored by Ofsted—and children being placed out of borough.
The resources available are not meeting the needs of children—as shown in the shortage of adoptive parents and fostering parents and the lack of resources for looked-after children and supported children—and that has driven up costs and led to a lack of specialist provision and the expansion of unregulated private children’s homes. A system that was designed to be flexible and used in extremes is now used to plug a hole in the system. Supported children are at serious risk of exploitation by drug smugglers, county lines operators and gangsters.
Management and staff are not trained to the level required to adequately support these children, who are going through the difficult transitional years from childhood to adulthood. There are no minimum standards set out in law for unregulated 16-plus provision. Compounding that issue is the fact that these children are classed as self-sufficient. They manage their health and finances and may leave accommodation as and when they please, as they are deemed autonomous. We are seeing more and more of these children being sent to north-western towns, where housing costs are well below the national average, with some hosting authorities having as many as 300 out-of-borough children. The corporate parenting responsibility is the home borough’s.
In St Helens alone, there are roughly 25 unregulated children’s homes, hosting up to 120 out-of-borough children. The management and staff of these homes do not have the authority or skills to prevent these vulnerable children from going out into the hazardous world, where gangsters target them and promise them status and money that they have never seen, before trapping them in a world of intimidation and fear, where they get locked into criminal activity, trafficking drugs across county lines. Essentially, these are apprenticeships into organised crime.
I reiterate that we have vulnerable children who have been moved miles away from homes, families, friends and neighbours—essentially, any positive support structure that they might have had—to an area that they do not know, into an unregulated private accommodation system of inconsistent quality. Is it any wonder that we have seen the travesty of county lines drugs gangs expanding? It is completely unacceptable. We are failing these young people. We are responsible for their hope, safety and future. The system and procedures are not safeguarding these vulnerable children. We must safeguard them and stop exposing them to criminal exploitation by these 21st-century Fagins.
I implore this and any future Government to implement regulations and oversights for private children’s homes and supported children, as well as procedures for placing a child out of borough. We need to increase the resources for care, education and safeguarding activities. Basically, we need to invest in children.
I applaud St Helens and Whiston Hospitals, which are among the nine most outstanding hospitals, but they suffer from recruitment problems and nursing shortages for the very reasons my hon. Friend the Member for Heywood and Middleton mentioned in her speech.
We must safeguard our children and invest in our public services—for children, adults and children in need of care—and in adult social care and health. We in St Helens have integrated adult social care and health, and it is superb, but we could do far more with just a little extra funding in social care. It needs to go there as well as health. It is superb. Please invest more in public services.